I first came across Parkour, or Free Running as it’s also been called, in the British TV documentary Jump London in 2003. It was an amazing film, charting the history of the sport/art as well as showing it in action around some London landmarks, and I remember thinking that it would work well in a film. The highly successful French producer/director/writer Luc Besson had the same idea two years before me when he came up with Yamakasi (2001). He only provided the basic idea for that film, but in 2004, he returned to the sport, this time coming up with District B13.
The French seem to have a thing for loose remakes of John Carpenter films; Florent Emilio Siri made The Nest (2002) that had much in common with Assault on Precinct 13, and District B13 is a French take on Carpenter’s Escape from New York. What sets these films apart from Hollywood-style remakes is that they only take the basic idea and use it as a springboard to create a new and exciting story.
The year is 2010 and the French government has walled in the most crime-infested areas of the major cities. The worst of these is B13, though it’s not without its decent citizens, and one such is Leito, a man doing his best to clean up the streets he lives in. Sadly, the local police aren’t looking to do the same and it’s Leito who finds himself in prison.
Jumping forward six months, we find undercover cop Damien Tomasa completing an assignment. It’s soon clear that even unarmed he’s a man who’s more than capable of taking care of himself, giving a display of martial arts that even Jet Li would be proud of. With barely time to clean up, he’s called to his superiors’ office. There’s a stolen "clean" nuclear bomb in B13 and someone’s started the timer. Tomasa’s mission is to deactivate the bomb and he’s paired with someone who knows his way around the district… Leito. Leito wants back in to save his sister; the local crime lord who just happens to be the man with the nuke is holding her.
The movie moves at a breakneck pace with barely a moment for even the audience to draw breath let alone the protagonists. Everything about it is fast: the fights, the editing, even the dialogue is delivered at a gallop so you’ll need to be a speed reader to keep up with the subtitles. Given his first chance to direct after working on a couple of Luc Besson produced action movies (Transporter II and Unleashed), Pierre Morel clearly wants to show what he can do, and on the evidence here, he can do a lot. The fight scenes flow nicely. I’m not usually a fan of the rapid, music video-style editing of fights, it makes them seem less authentic, but here it works, adding to the urgency of the situation. Even the use of slow motion is spot on, letting you experience the bone-crunching impacts and some breathtaking stunts in all their violent glory. He also does a good job of capturing the energy of Parkour when Leito is running around and jumping off rooftops to evade the bad guys.
It’s difficult to say if the two leads can really act as all they’re really called on to do here is run, jump, and knock the stuffing out of just about everyone they come into contact with. Cyril Raffaelli (Damien) has a background in martial arts and worked as a stuntman on the two Transporter films. Prior to this his most memorable role as an actor was in Kiss of the Dragon as one of the twins Jet Li fights near the end. He’s comfortable enough in front of the camera and has enough screen presence to be the next Van Damme if he wants to try his luck in Hollywood and can find a producer willing to give him a shot at the big time. David Belle, who plays Leito, was one of the creators of Parkour, and Besson created this part with him in mind. As an athlete, he’s amazing and like his co-star has enough charisma and energy to carry the role.
There are only three other notable performances in the film. Tony D'Amario plays the man-mountain K2 and brings humanity to his character that is not often found in a heavy. Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the script, plays the crime lord Taha Bemamud. While there’s a nod to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana (Scarface) in Taha he’s not just a carbon copy and, with a history of comedy work, Naceri adds a little humour to the part. Finally, there’s Dany Verissimo in the important role of Lola, Leito’s sister. With only a few scenes early in the film she manages to make Lola both tough and lovable, thus allowing the audience to sympathise with Leito’s attempt to rescue her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s unbelievably cute either.
While the film makes a small attempt at social commentary, it’s not heavy-handed and doesn’t get in the way of the all-important action. It’s nice to see that Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly when it comes to big, dumb action movies and, with the added realism of the two leads doing all their own stunts and the blistering pace, it seems the French could teach Tinseltown a thing or two. Hopefully this will be the start for two new action heroes. I for one would like to see them again.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the film looks great. The deliberately subdued colour tones are captured perfectly and there’s no lack of detail in the image. All in all, a first class transfer.
If the video is good, the audio is even better. You get the choice of four audio tracks –- English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 EX or Dolby Digital 2.0. The French 5.1 track is one of the most active I’ve heard, with bullets flying from all corners of the room. It may lack subtlety but then so does the film.
Both English and Spanish are included.
The main extra is a “Making of District B13” documentary that runs close to an hour. It covers almost every angle of the production from the original concept through the casting and rehearsals to the actual shooting of the film. The behind the scenes shots show just how hard and bruising this was to make. Almost all the notables are heard from and have something interesting to say with only Luc Besson sadly absent. And we find out that, unsurprisingly, Morel’s favourite word during production was ‘faster.’
Also included is a rough cut of the casino fight scene and some outtakes.